301 Redirecting and Forwarding: How it Works, What it’s for, and an Example of When to Use it

Importance of 301 Redirects When Building a New Website

If you’re building a new website and haven’t heard of 301 redirects, look ‘em up! It’s in your best interest to educate yourself and understand why they’re important. They’re among the most important tools for boosting SEO and domain authority for your new site. 

What are 301 Redirects?

Here’s a crash course from the SEO experts over at Moz:

“A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect which passes between 90-99% of link equity (ranking power) to the redirected page. 301 refers to the HTTP status code for this type of redirect. In most instances, the 301 redirect is the best method for implementing redirects on a website.”

Let's look at an example

Say your page URL is something like this:

https://domain.com/category/product-xyz

The corresponding page on the new site looks like this:

https://domain.com/new-category/product-xyx

They’re close, but not the same. In this situation, you need to use a 301 redirect to send traffic from the old page to the new one. What happens if you don’t add one? One of three things—each hurting your website:

1.

The old URL someone has bookmarked or linked from another site will go to a 404 error page, because that page is no longer there.

2.

Google indexed the old page, so if someone searched for and clicked on that page, it will result in a 404 error.

3.

You lose the link power from the old page, lowering the new page rank. It will then take longer to make up the ranking the old page once had.

Think of 301 redirects as a bridge between the old and the new. Using a 301 redirect properly retains ranking power, while redirecting visitors from the old page to the new one. Whether the URL changed, you removed the page or the site migrated, 301s link intent to destination and make sure people get to where they need to go.

More than a tool for directing traffic, 301 redirects are part of crucial site infrastructure maintenance. Using 301s tells Google and other bots that you’re paying attention to your changing website and updating accordingly. Google sees 301 redirects as an important part of user experience and website reliability, which is why they pass between 90-99% of link equity from the old URL to the new destination.

An example of the power of 301 redirects

Last summer, our team worked with a client who had 5 different domain names:

  1. incrediblebag.com 
  2. ovenhot.com
  3. ultimatepizzabag.com
  4. mealsonwheelsbags.com
  5. aplusbags.com 

Each site offered the same types of products: pizza, restaurant and catering delivery bags. The client wanted to build a new site and combine all the SEO power from its many domains into one singular destination. Along with other technical SEO techniques, we made sure the 301 redirects were set up and moved permanently to forward to the new www.incrediblebags.com.

Here’s how we did it.

First, we added all of the URLs from each website into their own excel spreadsheets. Not just from one homepage to the new, but every URL. Once the new site was finished, we went through and added similar, corresponding URLs from the new site to a column next to the URL of the old site. This gave us our like-kind URLs, so we could start mapping redirects.

Normally, we do this as we transition an old WordPress site to a new one or an old Shopify store to a new domain. One of the hurdles for this project was that two of the sites were Shopify sites and three were Volusion sites, so we had to figure out how to set up the 301 redirects outside of the normal htaccess method.

Our solution ended up being simple. We decided to host all 5 domains on one single account, where each domain would have a script created on that server's settings to follow the 301 redirects we set up for each domain. That seemed to do the trick! You want to verify through Search Console that you didn't miss anything. 

The new site launched in August of 2019 with no rankings, no traffic and no domain power. Today, they’ve seen incredible results:

Keyword Rankings

Organic Traffic Growth

Setting up a 301 redirect: two simple methods

To set up a redirect, you need to make sure it’s implemented effectively. If you set up a redirect to the wrong destination or in an incorrect way, you’re building a bridge to nowhere. All that traffic going to an old site or old URL will fall off because the 301 doesn’t get them to the new destination. Thankfully, setting up a 301 isn’t all that difficult. Let’s look at two ways to do it, using the htaccess method and WordPress plugins.

In our Incredible Bags example above, we mentioned that we were unable to use the htaccess method, due to the different nature of the sites. “htaccess” is the most common way to set up a 301 redirect, named after the site configuration file you modify. There are two ways to modify the .htaccess file—for a single URL redirect or for a site-wide redirect. Here’s what the code looks like for both:

Single URL 301 Redirect

Redirect 301 /oldpage.html https://www.yoursite.com/newpage.html

Site-wide URL 301 Redirect

Redirect 301 / https://newsite.com/

Pop open the .htaccess file for your site, paste in the code with the appropriate URLs, reload the file to your server and voilà, you’ve got a functional 301 redirect. This method will work for any Apache server… but not on something like a Nginx server, since Nginx doesn’t use .htaccess as part of its architecture. We won’t go too deep into Apache vs. Nginx in this post—read up on their differences here. All you need to know is that while editing the .htaccess works for most sites, it’s not a catchall for instituting 301 redirects.

This brings us to the second simple solution: WordPress plugins. If you have a site built on the WordPress platform (there are 455,000,000 of them out there), you benefit from access to convenient plugins. Plugins perform a specific action for your site, changing the way it looks or behaves. And, it just so happens that a plugin can also serve 301 redirects to incoming traffic. Plugins like Easy Redirects Manager or Redirection make it easy to link an old URL to a new one with a couple of clicks.

WordPress Plugins are especially helpful because they’re often dynamic. You can see the old and new URLs without opening any site files, and you can make changes quickly if you’re doing a mass migration of traffic. If you ever change the permalink of a WordPress page for any reason, it needs to have a 301 in-place. Plugins not only make this simple, they serve as a good reminder to redirect before you forget about it!

The htaccess method and WordPress plugins aren’t the only ways to set up a redirect—they’re just the simplest and most widely-used. If you’re so inclined, you can set up redirects in the response headers of pages programmed in PHP, ASP, Java and other languages.

The ugly side of 301 redirects: what to avoid

It’s easy to set up 301 redirects, but it’s also easy to abuse them. Overuse or improper use of 301 redirects on your site can lead to more harm than good. Here are a few things to avoid when setting up 301s and why they’re bad:

  • Redirect loops: If your URL redirects to another URL that redirects to another URL, and so on, you’ve accidentally set up a redirect loop. Not only does this put a lot of stress on your website to keep redirecting traffic, it’s also very suspicious. Google will penalize your site for redirect loops and may flag your content, since lots of scammers use 301 redirects to funnel traffic into malicious sites.
  • Bad redirects: If you redirect a URL to a page that’s no longer there or lacking any content, the bounce rate of visitors will skyrocket. Google will take note and penalize your site. Always make sure your redirects point from an old URL to a new one that’s both relevant and populated with helpful content that visitors to the old URL will value. Time-on-page counts towards the efficacy of your 301 redirects.
  • Using 302 vs. 301 and vice-versa: 301 redirects serve a different purpose than 302 redirects (more on that below). Use the one that’s a best fit for the situation. If you’re permanently redirecting traffic, use a 301. If traffic is only temporarily going to a new URL, 302 is the right answer. Confusing these codes or using them improperly has a negative effect on your SEO and link authority.

Setting up 301 redirects should be a controlled process. Like in our Incredible Bags example above, it’s smart to dump everything into a spreadsheet to track your 301 redirects. Map target URL to destination URL for each redirect and make sure you’re not creating any loops or bad redirects. This should be a living document—especially if you’re utilizing 302 redirects for any amount of time.

What about 302 redirects? What’s the difference?

If you’ve been Googling around trying to get the scoop on redirects, you’ve probably come across both 301 and 302 redirect options. What’s the difference? It’s subtle, but important—and it could affect how your site performs in search results.

As you already know, a 301 redirect is a permanent redirect. You use it to send traffic from an old destination to a new one, to maintain the authority and power of the original destination. 301 redirects are a bit different. They still redirect traffic, but only temporarily. A 302 redirect tells Google and other bots that you’re sending traffic to a new destination for a limited time, but it’ll eventually go back to the original destination. As a result, 302 redirects don’t retain the link power because the assumption is that things will return to the way they were.

When do you use a 302 redirect vs. a 301 redirect? Most often, it’s for a temporary sales funnel. You might send visitors from a URL to a landing page as part of a relevant promotion, for example. Other times, 302 redirects are good for expiring information—your website has a new press release up that you’ll archive in a couple of weeks. When the new information is no longer relevant, you can remove the 302 redirect and go back to normal, with no loss in link value or SEO authority.

Bottom line: 301s present SEO, infrastructure and traffic benefits

Whether you’re in a position like Incredible Bags, with multiple websites and fragmented traffic, or you need to send traffic to a new page URL, 301 redirects are the answer. They’re a simple way to keep your site cohesive, so visitors can always get to where they want to go.

Beyond surface navigability, 301s also play an integral role in how your site performs from an SEO perspective. When your links go to valuable pages and don’t end in 404 errors, you’re telling Google that you’re paying attention to infrastructure. Likewise, if you’re careful to use 301s vs. 302s and frequently updating your site to include both in the right capacity, it shows you’re updating with intent.

Think about your website as a living thing. It’s always growing and changing, and as it does, it’ll outgrow certain links. Rather than let these pages languish and die, dragging down your site, use 301 redirects to preserve their link authority and channel it into new growth. Once you audit your site and make meaningful updates, it doesn’t take long to maintain your link structure with occasional 301 updates. Add it to your SEO checklist to bring continuous, meaningful benefits to your ever-growing site.


About the Author

My name is Cale Loken and I'm a digital marketing consultant located in Minneapolis. My agency, 301 Madison Consulting, works with businesses to bring them more new customers from their online digital presence. I enjoy writing articles from time to time, so I appreciate you checking out our blog.

Cale Loken

Marketing Consultant

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